DECEMBER 14, 2017 – When I was growing up in Jewish Mattapan, Hanukkah was a home holiday, a time to light the candles for eight nights to recall that a simple band of Maccabees led a successful uprising against the mighty Syrian army. High on the agenda was the cleansing of the defiled temple and rekindling the Ner Tamid, the eternal light that should never go out. But there was only one small vessel of sacred oil, enough to burn for just one day. As we know, that oil miraculously lasted for eight days. Each year as we light the Hanukkah candles for eight days, we commemorate that miracle.
My, how Hanukkah has changed! I recall how we celebrated as children in my home. We would gather around the black stove in the kitchen where my folks placed our little, unimpressive tin menorah that darkened over the years. It was a simple style with eight holders for the candles and a raised one for the shamash, the caretaker candle that lit all the others.
My mother placed the menorah on a small tray, and then on double-thick brown paper cut out of a large bag. This was designed to catch the drippings from the straight yellowish-orange candles reminiscent of the holy oil. Since there was no such thing as dripless candles, the melted wax left thick little piles on everything. Replacing the paper was easy, cleaning the wax off the tin menorah was not.
Still, that tin model with its plain candles was special to me. And, when the candles were glowing, it felt like I was looking at the most beautiful sight in the world. In my memory I can still see my eyes sparkle in the warm glow of the flames. There were no expensive gifts for eight days back then. The traditional gift was Hanukkah gelt in modest denominations.
Through the years, I always looked forward to lighting the candles, chanting the Hebrew blessings, and singing Maoz Tzur, our Rock of Ages. I loved it all.
Somewhere along the way, however, I decided it was time to upgrade the old menorah. So when a college sorority sister mentioned her dad owned a jewelry store in Boston, I asked if he sold menorahs. When she said yes, I asked if she could please get a traditional one I could buy. All that was left was one with a music box that played Maoz Tzur when it was wound up. I was thrilled.
When I married, my mother gave me the menorah. For my kids growing up, it was magical. After lighting the candles, the boys would stare at the flames while listening to the music. It was truly special.
Many years ago on a Danvers Senior Center trip, we stopped at a Lladró factory store in Gibraltar, the peninsula where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea. I was overwhelmed by all the choices until I spotted the one: a little boy, kneeling on the floor with his dog beside him. Entranced, he stared at the burning candles. That porcelain was meant for me.
I also have another special menorah, a contemporary spiral-shaped polished chrome one with the candle holders on different levels and the shamash on top. It was a gift from a very dear friend, Father Gerard Dorgan, a retired priest from St. Mary of the Annunciation Church. An admirer of the Jewish scholar Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Fr. Dorgan frequently quoted him in his sermons. When I asked the good priest why the gift of the menorah, he said, “I saw it in a shop in Cambridge and I liked it. My mother always had two menorahs on our mantle.”
So now, I have my own two very meaningful menorahs, and I often alternate depending on my mood. However, when Hanukkah and Christmas coincided last year, I brought the musical menorah and candles with me to my friends’ home on Christmas Day. I lit the candles, chanted the Hanukkah blessings, and turned on the music. My Catholic friends, adults and children, were delighted.
As the Hanukkah candles burned down and the music played, I thought to myself what a wonderful blending of Christians and Jews breaking bread together. And I prayed for peace.